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How Electro-Optical/Infrared Provides Critical Warfighting Capabilities

As the sun sets, a speck appears on the horizon and naval watch-standers must be able to tell if it’s hostile or friendly before it’s too late.

New advancements in Electro-Optical and Infrared (EO/IR) capabilities by L3Harris Technologies help warfighters differentiate that speck, allowing them more time to react if needed.

Compared to traditional radar systems that offer a top-down view, these advancements give the surface navy a 360-degree view of their environment, increase situational awareness, and assist in detecting and identifying  objects around them.

Building on the foundation set by the MK46 Mod 0 in the early ‘90s, L3Harris has continuously evolved EO/IR capabilities, investing through Independent Research And Development (IRAD).

“The global electro-optical/infrared systems market is projected to reach $11.68 billion by 2026. L3Harris has invested significantly in IRAD furthering our presence in markets such as situational awareness, fire control, cross-domain (airborne, ground, maritime), and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” said Kristin Houston, President, Electro Optical, L3Harris. “The increased development of advanced sensor technology-based systems assists L3Harris in meeting end users’ numerous applications and being on the cutting edge of those opportunities.”

In April, the U.S. Navy selected the L3Harris-led team for its Shipboard Panoramic Electro-Optic/Infrared (SPEIR) system, elevating EO/IR sensors from a dedicated weapons support sensor to a full passive mission solution capability.

“We’re working very hard to design an architecture that is built to last, replaceable, in a modular open system approach and supports modernization through modularity,” SPEIR Chief Engineer Stephen McClanahan said. “We’re making sure this system remains relevant as threats evolve rapidly.”

This system can be deployed on multiple Navy platforms from small unmanned surface vessels to massive aircraft carriers, using a Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA). This approach supports use on multiple platforms with significant reduction in engineering rework and life cycle cost by leveraging common imaging components and technologies to the largest extent possible. The goal of MOSA is to provide a flexible design strategy with a simple, more cost-effective approach to upgrade as newer technologies become available.

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Our SPATIAL solution delivers an open architecture shipborne system that uses shipboard-installed EO and IR sensors to provide visual surveillance – passive surveillance, detection and cueing – in support of ship self-defense.

Comparing Radar to EO/IR

The U.S. military has relied on radar since the 1930s and continues to improve the system, which bounces radio waves off objects to determine their location. However, as with other active sensors, radar creates a signal that can be detected by adversaries. It is also difficult to detect small objects like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC) with radar due to their size and surrounding clutter.

Electro-optical sensors work by converting visible light and infrared energy into electronic signals, which are then analyzed. Invisible to the naked eye, infrared radiation can be detected in total darkness. EO/IR technology combines the two capabilities into one view to create a clearer picture of threats for the warfighter. The benefit of fusing visible light with infrared signatures provides the ability to detect, recognize and identify potential threats during all conditions of visibility such as day/night and through atmospheric obscurations.

Unlike radar technology, which relies on emitting active radiation signals and waiting for a return signal, EO/IR sensors are totally passive. EO/IR sensors detect signals in the visible/infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, naturally emitted by objects of interest. This passive operation is a key strategic advantage of EO/IR sensors by assisting Navy ships in avoiding detection and becoming targets themselves.

EO/IR technology, such as the SPEIR program, uses infrared heat signatures and algorithms that look for objects based on size, motion, characteristics and other factors. It can point out objects as small as one to two pixels on a screen – including incoming targets, such as anti-ship cruise missiles, FIAC and UAV systems.

“We’re sampling a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that has not been sampled before and allows you to better understand what it is you’re looking at,” McClanahan said. “Every object has a distinct electromagnetic fingerprint, and our EO/IR sensors provide a more complete picture of that electromagnetic spectrum. This enables better target discrimination and identification in a cluttered and congested environment.”

The SPEIR program leverages the L3Harris technologies developed under the Office of Naval Research’s Future Naval Capability Shipboard Panoramic Electro-Optical/Infrared Cueing and Surveillance System (SPECSS) and an L3Harris solution known as SPATIAL (Shipboard Passive Automated Target Imaging And Localization), which expands existing systems’ scope of tasks.

This additional capability is another example of how L3Harris continues to innovate as a Trusted Disruptor in our industry.

“Using agile Model-Based System Engineering, our approach in how we deliver technical artifacts, technical reviews, performance and design reviews is fundamentally different,” McClanahan said. “One thing that sets us apart, is we’ve fully embraced being a ‘Trusted Disruptor.’ Our agile-based approach is to develop fast, demonstrate frequently and often.”

“Every object has a distinct electromagnetic fingerprint, and our EO/IR sensors provide a more complete picture of that electromagnetic spectrum," SPEIR Chief Engineer Stephen McClanahan said. "This enables better target discrimination and identification in a cluttered and congested environment.”

L3Harris As A Trusted Disruptor

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EO/IR In Other Domains

These EO/IR advancements also open the door to be used in other domains outside of the surface navy.

“Looking at different parts of the system, you could use it for other domains. It could be used to protect a base and detect other moving targets,” McClanahan said. “The narrow field sensor and laser range finder could be used for land-based drone detection systems.”

Another example of L3Harris’ expertise in EO/IR is its industry-leading system WESCAM MXTM portfolio.

WESCAM MX offers a broad range of EO/IR sensors in a product line of turrets leveraging advancement in diverse optical, sensing and processing technologies - resulting in the best performance per pound and best-in-class imagery. They provide real-time, full-motion situational awareness for deployment in airborne, land and maritime domains. For example, law enforcement agencies deploy WESCAM MX sensors at low-altitudes for tactical surveillance or at medium-altitudes for more covert missions. In 2021, the U.S. Navy selected L3Harris to provide WESCAM MX-20 for the P-8A Poseidon aircraft.

As threats continue to evolve across domains, L3Harris will continue to increase its focus on expanding EO/IR technology to enhance protection of U.S. and allied warfighters.

“Our military customers need mission solutions that adapt as quickly as they do when faced with evolving threats,” said Dr. Ross Niebergall, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. “By developing life-saving EO/IR technology using industry leading open-system principles, L3Harris is proving we are up to the challenge, which is why we are known as the ‘Trusted Disruptor’ in the industry.”

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